Here Comes the Sun: the Happy Sophomore Novelist

My second novel, Sweeter than Birdsong, is appearing in stores across the nation right now in preparation for its February 7th launch.

I feel much happier and calmer about this second novel’s launch than I did about the launch of my debut novel. That may seem odd if you’ve ever read writers’ blog posts about the sophomore novel blues. Writers often seem to worry more about their second novels than their debuts

I’m the opposite.

Before my debut novel Fairer than Morning launched, I was an anxious wreck. My unprecedented state of nervous anticipation started a full two months before the May 2011 launch of the book.

I knew why I was so wound up. I was about to realize a lifelong dream, with all the emotion that entailed, but very few people in my immediate vicinity had any clue what I was going through emotionally. If I had said “I’m running in the Olympics next week so I’m a little jittery,” most people would have understood the massive understatement involved. But the publishing dream is not as easy to imagine and therefore, not as easy to support. Most of my non-writing acquaintances didn’t realize that I was literally in an agony of suspense. The few times that I hinted at it, I got blank stares, so I found it was more prudent to keep it to myself. Non-writers tend to see publication as a glamorous, ego-pumping event, and they totally would not get it if your response to “So, are you excited about your book?” was “Will you excuse me? I think I’m going to be sick.”

In addition to the tension of awaiting the dream-come-true, I didn’t know what I was doing with PR during my debut.  I had to feel my way through it, with varying degrees of success. Many of the elements of the publication process were so new that they were disorienting.

So now, I am very, very thankful that all those debut-novel storms have passed, and the sun is shining for the launch of my second novel.

I know what I’m doing with PR, and I understand my publisher better.

I’m confident in the novel itself, thanks to my editors and their wise suggestions.

I understand the readers who will read my novel, and how they are likely to react to it. I know that every novel that has any substance will receive at least one or two harshly-critical reviews, so there’s no point in letting it ruffle any of my feathers. I’ve also learned to distinguish which criticism is constructive and which is the result of some reviewer having a really bad day. It happens. No big deal.

So the good news I want to share today is that for some authors, the second novel is going to feel much, much better than the first, when the big launch day rolls around.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with non-writers around you, when you went through a stressful experience in your writing life. How did they react? How much did you decide to share with them?

Deadlines: Slaying Medusa

I’ve been through a rough initiation to the reality of deadlines. In May, I learned that I needed to do a 60 to 70 percent rewrite of my second novel…in one month. My agent negotiated for an extra month, but that was all the wiggle room available. So I had eight weeks to write about 300 pages. In addition, I knew that the enormity of the second novel’s rewrite would affect the time I needed to write the third novel in my series. Altogether, I was looking at writing and editing about 600 to 700 pages in six to seven months, starting in June 2011 and ending January 1st, 2012.

For some authors, this wouldn’t be too stressful. Many professional novelists turn out three or even four books a year.

For me, it felt like a death sentence. Given the pace at which I usually write and the research requirements for my novels, I knew that the unexpected impact of these deadlines would change my life drastically.

I wanted to run away, screaming and frothing at the mouth. It took every ounce of my willpower to accept the situation and begin the long, arduous, fearsome task ahead of me.

So here I am, three days from my deadline for my third novel. I have one chapter left to write.

I have officially survived the deadlines. And I feel like a warrior returning exhausted but victorious from a battle with some horrifying mythical creature .

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

I’ve never felt such pure dread from a writing project as I did during the rewrite of my second novel. In grad school, I finished my papers two weeks early without breaking a sweat, and liked it! Even though my doctoral dissertation took a lot of thought and hard work, I never feared it or thought I couldn’t do it.

You know the pinprick of reluctance and fear that we writers sometimes feel when we face a blank page? Magnify that by one hundred, until it’s like a lance through the guts, and that’s how I felt for seven of the eight weeks of that novel rewrite.

At the same time, I knew that this crippling fear was my true enemy.  If I could just live through it one hour at a time without hyperventilating, I could probably make it through the whole ordeal.

Deadlines are like Medusa: the mere sight of them can turn you to stone.

So don’t look directly at them, if you want to survive. Polish up your shield of faith and look only in its bright surface—let the deadline become a dim, hissing shadow while you hack off its head.

Does this metaphor seem too violent for the artistic, expressive act of novel writing? For me, that’s how it felt–like a raw struggle, nothing pretty or poetic to it, just sheer determination not to give in to the fear.

Tell me—have you ever faced this kind of overwhelming fear as a writer? What did you do to get through it?

My Reader, My Patron: How Authors will Survive in the Brave New Publishing World

I want to tell you about a musician friend of mine from college. The fact that this particular musician is a long-ago friend of mine has given me some serious street cred with my boardgamer buddies. But I’m not telling you about him to increase my geek-chic quotient. Instead, I want you to know that this very smart guy figured out how to make a living in the music industry–even though the industry had changed overnight from a scene dominated by major labels to a fragmented cyberworld of digital downloads. (Sound familiar to anyone in publishing?)

Six years ago, Jonathan Coulton realized that he had to appeal directly to his fans to support his art. He quit his job and started amassing a collection of his music online. He put fans on their honor to pay him for his digital music downloads, even though they could be downloaded free. He recommended a donation of $1 per song. Here’s an article about what he did. You’ll see many parallels in his life to what’s going on for authors in publishing today.

It worked. His determined fan base gathered around his website and sent him money to buy his music, because they knew that without it, he could not continue to make art. Eventually, he moved to a more traditional sales model, but the foundation of his success was appealing directly to his fans and letting them know they were his only patrons.

Writers, we need to support a similar revolution in consciousness among our readers. Right now, readers don’t realize that each one of them is a patron of the arts–that each buying decision determines which writer will survive and which will not. The reader’s power is disguised by the middle men: publishers and booksellers. Readers think that because our books are available in bookstores, someone must be buying them, correct? So what does it matter if they pay for a book or just get one from the library?

We have this new and growing problem: readers who would ordinarily be our most devoted patrons are starting to get our books for free through promotions, especially through e-book giveaways. These valuable readers don’t realize that the cascade of free books will eventually cause the professional demise of the authors they love. It’s not clear to them that they are our patrons, and without their support, we perish.

As a reader, I have my own strategy to support my favorite authors and allow them to keep writing, so I’ll share it with you here as advice for those who also wish to support the novels they love.

Patrons must be selective. When you choose books to buy, make sure you’re buying the books you love most. If you receive books for free, but you absolutely love one of those books, then go out of our way to purchase a copy of that same book. Give multiple copies as gifts, if the book is that good. If you don’t buy it, you can’t count on other people to do so and thereby support the author so you get to keep reading his books. YOU are the patron.

I hold fast to the hope that in the next few years, new models of publishing will develop that strengthen the bond of support between reader and author. I think we’re going to see a resurgence of patronage for writers through these more direct sales channels, and wonderful things will result. But as we move into this brave new world, we’re all going to have to be more conscious that as readers, we are patrons. And as writers in a world where books are being devalued by giveaways, we need to find tactful ways to make it clear to readers that without their financial patronage, our work will not survive.

Free Books and Bad Halloween Candy

In today’s free and easy e-book climate, e-texts of traditionally-published books are passed around like wax-paper toffee on Halloween night–you want some of this? Have four! Have six! No one likes ’em anyway. And that’s not even counting the scads of self-published e-books that are either free or 3 cents each. Most of those are the strawberry candies in the red plastic– no one wanted them either.

OK, I’m exaggerating. It’s not that free books are actually bad. Few books are as awfully nasty as wax-paper toffee, and many free books are very good–it’s just that their plentiful availability threatens to devalue them, like so many strawberry candies dumped straight in the trash can.

Seth Godin, prophet of social media and cultural change, thinks free books can be a good promotional tool. In fact, he thinks the way for debut authors to make it in this day and age is to give away their first books for free.

He said so, in this interview with Michael Hyatt of July 6, 2011. It’s well worth watching simply for all the debatable points he raises about where our book culture is headed and how we should handle that change. Seth Godin is an excellent persuasive speaker–but that doesn’t mean he is always right.

Free books have a very serious downside, and the best article I’ve read on that downside is by Janet Kobobel Grant of Books and Such Literary Agency. Here’s one of her main points, paraphrased:

Will free books flood the market to the extent that readers realize they no longer have to pay for their reading material?

Will readers think: “Why should I buy Ms. Ninja-Writer’s book now, when I can wait 9 months and get that same book for free as a marketing ploy for her next book?” In a tight economy, readers may resolve: “I am going to save money by never paying for a book again.”

My husband works in sales, and he is very good at it. He understands you can sometimes give away free stuff, but giving away too much or giving away the wrong products destroys your own customer base. He thinks this free e-book and 99 cent e-book stuff in the publishing industry is going to smash the market to tiny little pieces.

How many corporations can resist the lure of the quick buck?

Here’s the problem: corporations have always been very bad at resisting the lure of short-term gratification (such as temporary increased sales for a certain author) in favor of a wise long-term strategy (such as limiting or refusing the issue of free books). They have to compete, they want to make money in the ways they see others making money, whether it’s going to work in the long-term or not. For many executives, it’s easier to believe those who tell them that the short-term strategy is awesome and won’t cause any problems. Fewer executives want to hear the voice of caution and contrarianism–it’s too inconvenient.

My  question for you: Will the changes caused by free e-books permanently affect the ability of authors and publishers to make a living at their work? Will the major publishers collapse and only the best entrepreneurs rise out of the internet heap… entrepreneurs who may not be the best writers? Or do you agree with Seth Godin that free books are a fabulous strategy and the wave of the future for marketing?